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Guest column

Revamped Bucs pose new threat

By JOE THEISMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003


I think this is an entirely different team from the ones that have lost in Philadelphia the past two years. This team has a different coaching staff, you have a totally different mentality. Sure, it has no explosive people on offense, none, and that eliminates an element. But it's more efficient, you have receivers that can make plays, they're big guys.

And another big difference with this Bucs team: In the previous years starting as far back as 1999, it has been a team that has started slowly and then fought back into the situation of being competitive and into contention. And then I think it ran out of gas, particularly on the defensive side when the playoffs arrived. If you look back through the history of this season, this team comes in at a much better physical and mental state then it has been before.

Yes, it lost to Philadelphia this season, but to me, Jon Gruden didn't have any idea what he had in September, and he probably didn't even know what he had in October. I think the team was still feeling out its new coach. The Bucs are eons away from where they were when the season started and where they are today. This team, with the personnel it has on the offensive side, I don't believe it could be any better suited than to go and compete than it is right now.

The running game will be crucial. Teams have proven they can run the football against the Eagles. The Giants ran the ball against them, the Colts ran the ball against them.

The Bucs haven't run the ball well, but all they need to do is run a little. They need to present some kind of a running threat. I think in the past games, there hasn't been any whatsoever. And without a little bit of a running attack, the passing attack is nonexistent. This is going to be a different story this week because they are not playing against safeties as corners.

Nobody should get excited about what they did against the San Francisco secondary. The only people that should get excited about that are people who have no earthly idea what football is about, because you basically had wide receivers beating safeties, and now you go up against Sam Madison and Bobby Taylor. They could be the best tandem in the game, especially when you think of the pressure they can bring.

Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is very judicious when it comes to his blitz packages. That's where the running game is going to be so important. Jim's not going to be inclined to go after Brad if it's second and 6 or third and 4. I think the Bucs offense will get itself in trouble if it has to convert third and long or it gets holding penalties, and it's now first and 20. That's when you'll see pressure. It'll be very important for this offense both physically and mentally to keep itself out of the obvious pressure down.

Offensively the Bucs aren't going to scare anybody, but they're good enough now to be able to be encouraging to their defense.

Many of us in the media and the fans have asked how good would the Tampa Bay Bucs be if they could get points on the board and cut their defense loose. Well, we saw it against San Francisco this past week. You saw what happens when this team can play ahead, and it's awesome what it can do.

The Bucs cannot afford to let the Eagles get a 14-point lead. They can't afford to let them run away, because if they do, Brad Johnson is not the kind of guy who is going to be able to drop back 45 times and win. If he drops back 40 times, I don't think they win. If they keep it under 40, they did a good job. If they have to throw more than that, then you start to expose the offensive line.

Tampa Bay's ability to control the front four of the Eagles will be the difference in this football game. If Brad gets some time, the guys will make plays, and if they create some holes, he'll have his second and 6s. And I think they can.

As for Veterans Stadium, it's a tough place for an opponent to play, but I got a kick out of Jon saying they're not leaving the country to play; it's in the United States. I think it's a tough place to play, but New York is a tough place to play, and think how tough it is for people to come to Tampa and play.

The reason for the mystique about Veterans Stadium is because the past two years have been a disaster. But I think that psychologically, the cold weather and traveling to Philadelphia is a moot point for this football team. I don't think it's a factor at all. Jon will tell them, hey, we won in Chicago, guys. The cold doesn't mean diddly.

I think the game is much closer than the 31-9 it was the last time they played up there in the playoffs. To me, this is a game in which obviously turnovers will make a big difference; they always do. And field position will be a very big thing. The field goal kickers will be monumental in this game.

I think the score is 17-14, but I couldn't tell you who is going to win.

Joe Theismann, a former All-Pro with the Redskins and winning quarterback in Super Bowl XVII, is the color analyst for ESPN's Sunday night NFL games. He recently spoke with Radio/TV writer John C. Cotey about today's Bucs-Eagles game.

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